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What Does a Safe System of Work Mean?

Published November 22, 2019 (last updated on July 4, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Content Writer


A safe system of work includes the procedures and processes you should have in place to first eliminate, then minimise the hazards and risks in your workplace operations.

As the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), it is your responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace, as far as is reasonably practicable, for your workers.

To meet your health and safety obligations you should continually review your workplace for hazards and ensure you are doing everything reasonably practicable to minimise risk in the workplace. A part of this review should include consultation with workers.

What is a safe system of work?

A safe system is a thorough process that methodically studies the requirements of work. Based on the findings, a system should be established to ensure that work is being conducted in a manner that is safe and involves no, or at least, as little risk as possible.

While a safe system of work can take many forms, it is best if it is expressed in a written document, such as a safety policy. This will ensure evidence that the business is complying with its obligations to review and consult with workers.

Further, business owners should ensure that employees are aware of their workplace health and safety obligations and be continuously reminded and updated about risks in the workplace. Such documentation can be tailored to best suit the business and employees.

Why is it important to involve workers in the development of a safe system of work?

The process of developing a safe system of work needs to be thorough, this includes factoring the use of equipment and substances.

As well as being a requirement under most workplace health and safety laws, involving workers in your process for developing a safe workplace will contribute in providing in-depth insight into the risks and hazards involved in the workplace. In order to create a comprehensive safe system of work, it is necessary to gain input from your workers – the people who directly encounter these potential hazards.

What is a safe work method statement?

A safe work method statement (SWMS) is a safety document that outlines a particular task in the workplace and details the steps involved in doing the task, the hazards that have been identified for each steps, the level of risk associated with each hazard, and what control measures are in place.

A SWMS is a requirement for workplaces that undertake high-risk work as defined by the relevant legislation. The SWMS is used as a tool for not only supervisors but all persons engaged on high-risk worksites.

The contents of a SWMS can vary drastically depending on the worksites. Each statement needs to be tailored for individual sites, identifying clearly the possible hazards and risks that are involved and an outline of the control measures in place for them.

Steps to developing a safe system

A safe system needs to be developed and reviewed regularly. Ideally, a safe system will be underpinned by a culture which continually seeks to improve workplace health and safety practices. The system evolves with the business – where new challenges that pose a risk are quickly addressed, and outdated aspects of the system are replaced.

Despite the evolving nature of safe systems, there are some fundamental steps to keep in mind.

Step 1: Revisit your employees’ roles

To develop a safe system, it is necessary to understand which areas and aspects of your business are prone to risks and hazards. Assessing the duties of different employees will provide you with a starting point. It will differentiate between roles that involve higher risks to those with lower risks. All risks should be assessed, however higher risks should take priority.

Step 2: Assess risks and hazards

Once you have identified a hazard in your workplace you will need to assess it thoroughly. This includes understanding why the hazard is present and if there is any way to avoid it altogether. Any factors contributing to the hazards and the level of risk should be identified in this stage. When reviewing hazards the business should consider how likely an incident such as an injury or illness may occurr compared to how severe the injury or illness may be.

Step 3: Developing safe methods and control measures

This step involves brainstorming measures to put in place in order to counteract the potential risks and hazards. These measures and methods need to be able to be implemented in the business and should seek to either eliminate or minimise risk as far as reasonably possible.

For some hazards there will be codes of practice, guidelines or other industry standards which may be applied. These codes, whilst not a legislative requirement, set out the minimums for what is expected to control hazards and risks in the workplace. Business owners should ensure they keep up to date with these requirements and any changes.

Implementing the safe system

Once the steps above have been executed, it is time to implement the system. No system is perfect, but it will keep getting better with time and experience. It is therefore crucial to monitor the safe system closely – especially immediately after implementation and during periods of change or injury.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is meant by safety at work?

Safety at work is ensuring that personnel and visitors to the workplace are not exposed to avoidable risks, hazards, and potential incidents. This typically involves an assessment of the workplace where risks, or potential risks, are identified, and safeguards have been put in place to address them.

Are safe systems of work a legal requirement?

Yes, they are. However, the exact requirements may differ from state to state. Safe Work Australia provides the foundation and framework for most state legislation – Victoria and Western Australia being the exception. Despite Safe Work Australia providing the basis for most states, there are slight variations between the legal requirements for safe systems in each state.

What is the Work Health and Safety Act?

The Work Health and Safety Act is a model act which is utilised and adapted by most states, with the exception of Victoria and Western Australia. This Act seeks to ensure the safety and welfare of all persons in the workplace. It should be noted that all states have obligations outlined in legislation regarding the responsibilities or duties which are required to ensure safety in the workplace.

What must be included in workplace health and safety responsibilities?

All persons, whether management or employees are responsible for health and safety in the workplace. The responsibilities can be identified within policies and procedure manuals.

As a part of this, the responsibilities should outline, to name a few, the requirement to consult, the requirement for workers to adhere to health and safety instructions, and the business’ commitment to safety.

Who is responsible for workplace health and safety?

The person conducting the business or undertaking has the primary duty of care for workplace health and safety. This means that you need a safe working environment and that process and procedure is documented.

Employees also have responsibilities under most legislation, such as ensuring that they following any directions provided for the purposes of health and safety and ensuring that their actions do not affect the health and safety of others.

What is the purpose of a safe work method statement?

A safe work method statement (SWMS) is a safety document that outlines a particular task in the workplace and details the steps involved in undertaking a task, the hazards that have been identified for each step, the level of risk associated with each hazard, and what control measures are in place. A SWMS is a requirement for workplaces that undertake high-risk construction work.

What needs to be in a method statement?

While there can be some features that are formatted in a safe work method statement, the purpose of a statement is to be tailored to specific sites. The necessary aspects to include in a method statement are the steps involved in completing a task, the hazards and risks that are associated with the workplace, as well as outlining all control measures in place.

Who is responsible for the SWMS (safe work method statement)?

The business owners will have the primary obligation for ensuring that suitable SWMS are in place. Each business on site also has a responsibility to ensure that a SWMS is in place and is being followed.

Employees who are in immediate exposure of the risks should also be consulted in order to prepare a SWMS, should be educated on the SWMS, and how to comply with any control measures.

Who is the PCBU in a workplace?

PCBU is an abbreviation for the Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking. PCBUs have the responsibility of ensuring that health and safety standards are being held up to standard. The definition of the PCBU may differ in each state but will generally include:

  • Business owners, whether undertaking a business alone or not, or for profit, or other
  • Each person in a partnership
  • Unincorporated associations (however generally not volunteer associations which not employ any workers)
What are three things you can do to meet your primary duty of a PCBU?

As a PCBU, the most crucial aspect of your duty is ensuring health and safety in the workplace. This will change depending on your industry and workplace, but three common features are:

  1. Completing a risk assessment of your workplace to ensure hazards are identified and control measures are implemented
  2. Consulting with your workers and ensuring open communication about health and safety
  3. Consistently reviewing workplace practices to ensure safety
What does the term ‘reasonably practicable’ mean in relation to a PCBU’s legal obligations and duties?

‘Reasonably practicable’ is a legal term that takes into consideration a number of factors including, however not limited to; the likelihood of a hazard occurring, the degree of harm, what a business will know or should know about the hazard and the availability of ways to minimise risk.

Simply this means employers are required to behave and put necessary measures in place to ensure they’ve met the ‘reasonable’ criteria to ensure safety in the workplace.

What is work health and safety consultation?

Consultation is the process of communication involving workers in the identification and management of hazards and risks. Consultation provides an opportunity to share relevant information and participate in meaningful discussion on work health and safety matters between the PCBU and the workers.

What is the purpose of a health and safety risk assessment?

A risk assessment is a systematic process of evaluating the potential risks that are involved in an activity. The assessment will identify risks (or potential risks) in the workplace that would have otherwise gone unnoticed until an incident occurs. It generally requires identification of hazards, reviewing the likelihood and severity of an incident/injury occurring, and implementing control measures to minimise a potential incident. It should also be reviewed to ensure the effectiveness of the control measure.

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